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The Christmas season in Indian country | Smithsonian Voices

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Louie and Emmalani Longenecker (Diné) attend a pre-holiday Christmas party to immerse themselves in the holiday spirit.
Photo used with permission from Emmalani Longenecker

The introduction of Christianity to the original peoples of the Americas can be controversial in indigenous circles. Europeans brought Christianity to this half of the world and imposed it on indigenous communities, knowingly replacing existing spiritual beliefs with beliefs taught in the Bible. Cruelty and brutality often accompanied the indoctrination of Indigenous peoples. Yet it is also true that some tribes, families and individuals have willingly accepted the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.

Music played an important role in the conversion of Aboriginal people, establishing their worship practice and teaching them to celebrate the Christmas season. The first North American Christmas carol may have been written in the Wyandot language of the Huron-Wendat people. Jesous Ahatonhia (“Jesus, he was born”) – commonly known as the Noel Huron or the Huron Carol – would have been written in 1643 by the Jesuit priest Jean de Brébeuf. The earliest known transcription was made in the Huron-Wendat colony at Lorette, Quebec, in the 1700s.

Image of Kiowa translations of words in Christmas story

Printable flashcards set of Kiowa Keywords in Christmas Story. It includes the two high frequency words used in many Kiowa chants and prayers. Dàu: k’í: (God the Creator) pronounces Dau-k’ee with an exploded k ‘. Dàu: k’yà: í: (son of God, Jesus) pronounced Dau-k’yah-ee.

Flashcard photo courtesy of Kiowa Language and Culture Revitalization Program

Across the Indian country, indigenous people have gathered in churches, missions and temples to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ by singing Christmas carols and hymns in their indigenous languages. In some churches, the story of Jesus’ birth is recited in native languages. Some Indigenous churches also host nativity pieces using Indigenous settings and actors to recreate the birth of Jesus Christ. Among Catholics, Christmas Eve Mass traditionally begins in Indian communities at midnight and continues until the early hours of Christmas Day. In teepees, hogans, and homes, members of the Native American Church also hold Christmas services, ceremonies that begin on Christmas Eve and continue through the night until Christmas morning.

In contemporary times, traditional powwow singing groups have revamped Christmas carols to appeal to Indigenous audiences. A humorous example is that of Warscout NDN 12 days of Christmas, from their album Red christmas. Indigenous solo artists also perform Christmas classics in Indigenous languages. Rhonda Head (Crie), for example, recorded Oh holy night, and Jana Mashpee (Lumbee and Tuscarora) recorded Winter wonders in Ojibway.

Indigenous communities hold traditional tribal dances, circle dances and powwows on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Among the Pueblo Indians of the southwest, special dances take place, such as the buffalo, eagle, antelope, turtle and harvest dances. The eight pueblos of northern New Mexico perform Los Matachines– a special dance drama mixing Moorish, Spanish and North African Pueblo cultures – which takes place on Christmas Eve, with a procession by pine torches.

The Art of the Christmas Story Ledger

The great book “The Birth of Jesus Christ”, based on a 1930 score of Away in the Manger, is reinterpreted by Umonhon artist Eddie Encinas.

Photo used with permission from Eddie Encinas

For native artisans, it’s traditionally the busy season as they prepare special Christmas gifts. Artists and craftspeople from across the country create beadwork, woodwork, jewelry, clothing, basketry, pottery, sculpture, paintings, leather and feathers for special Christmas sales and markets art open to the public. For the 15 years before 2020, the National Museum of the American Indian held its annual Native Art Market in New York and Washington a few weeks before Christmas.

In many communities and homes, Christian customs are intertwined with Indigenous culture as a way to express Christmas in a uniquely Indigenous way. The importance of giving is a cultural tradition among most tribes. Even in times of famine and misery, the natives ensured that their families, the elderly and orphans were taken care of. This state of mind prevails in the present. Giving gifts is appropriate any time a tribal social or ceremonial gathering is taking place.

Photo of a Christmas dinner

A festive Christmas food creation made from Chicken Breast with Honey Garlic Sauce, Garden Butternut Squash with Garden Pumpkin Seeds, Broccoli, and Roasted Chili Fan Garden Potatoes by Lloree Dickens ( Hidatsa and Arikara of the Three Affiliate Tribes) adorns the holiday table in White Shield, North Dakota.

Photo courtesy of Lloree Dickens, Plethora Love: Art & Food

Likewise, traditional Aboriginal foods are prepared for this special occasion. Salmon, walleye, shellfish, moose, venison, elk, mutton, geese, duck, rabbit, wild rice, cabbage, squash, pine nuts, corn soup, red and green chili stews, bread pudding, pueblo bread, piki bread, bannock (frying bread), tortillas, berries, roots and native teas are just a few of the things that come to mind. Individual Indian tribes and organizations sponsor Christmas dinners for their elders and communities before Christmas. Tribal service groups and warrior societies visit retirement homes and shelters to provide meals for their tribe members on Christmas Day.

Image of an ornament displayed on a Christmas tree.

Chad Toehay (Kiowa, Osage, Comanche and Sac & Fox) is remembered by his sister Chay on a commemorative ornament which is prominently displayed on his family Christmas tree.

Photo used with permission from Chay Toehay-Tartsah.

Many tribes begin their Christmas meal by preparing a festive plate or a plate of spirits for their deceased loved ones. As a special feast day of Christmas, a prayer is said and food offerings are placed outside the house on a plate or in the holy fire for parents who are no longer with us. Respect is that you allow your memories – the ones that have passed – to eat first. When I’m on social media I see so many people asking for prayers because someone they love has tested positive for Covid, or their loved one is in the hospital because of Covid, or they have lost a loved one to Covid. Others live their first Christmas without being loved.

Alternatively, some natives do not celebrate Christmas but take this seasonal opportunity to celebrate the winter solstice. Still others in the Northern Plains honor their loved ones with a commemorative horseback ride called the Dakota 38 + 2. On December 26, 1862, at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in Dakota County, 38 Dakota men were hanged at one time. . It is the largest mass execution in US history and how some natives of Mni Sota and the Dakotas observe this time of year. Each December 10, the runners set out to complete the 330 miles between Lower Brule, South Dakota, and ends December 26 in Mankato, Minnesota.

According to the Urban Indian Health Commission, nearly seven in ten American Indians and Alaska Natives, or 2.8 million people, live in or near cities, and the number is increasing. During the Christmas holidays, many urban natives return to their families, reserves and communities to reconnect and reaffirm tribal bonds. They open gifts and have large family meals like other American Christians.

Photo of a person dressed as Santa Claus with Chickasaw accessories.

A Chickasaw Santa prepares to welcome visitors to the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City with a warm “A’HO HO HO!”

Photo used with permission from Amy Bergseth and Brad “Ace” Greenwood.

The National Museum of the American Indian will be closed on Christmas Day. However, we do have a pre-recorded interview available with internationally renowned glass artist Preston Singletary (American Tlingit), in which he discusses his inspirations and passion for the art of glass prior to the opening of the exhibition ” Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight, “January 28, 2022, at the museum in Washington, DC. Singletary incorporates traditional images of the Northwest Coast and the Tlingit into their glass masterpieces https://nmai.brand.live/c/prestonsingletary.

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Louie and Emmalani Longenecker (Diné) attend a pre-holiday Christmas party to immerse themselves in the holiday spirit.

Photo used with permission from Emmalani Longenecker


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